Building Friendships

How Manhattan’s skyscrapers become central figures in our lives

by David Masello

Unlike an unimaginative, soul-numbing work of art—a Damien Hirst pickled animal or a Koons kitschy puppy—we can’t completely ignore a piece of architecture simply because of its sheer scale. When a building enters the metaphorical room of Manhattan, it is likely there for our entire existential stay in the room. We have to live with the building, interact with it, look at it in the skyline, although not necessarily befriend it. 

41 Cooper Square

Who could be friends, for instance, with 41 Cooper Square, the most conceited show-off to appear on any Manhattan street, with an impenetrably cold personality and a complete disregard for its neighbors? “I’m not going to show you how to find your way inside,” the jumble of stained concrete planes and now-filthy panes of glass announce to anyone who approaches. “And if you go in the wrong door, that is, if you can even find the door, you better duck, because I’m going to knock you on your head with one of my angled concrete beams.” Detritus collects and spins in its many alcoves, each stenciled with “No Trespassing” warnings (who would want to linger?). It is the neighborhood bully. One of its fellow gang members appears to be the nouveau New School University Center at 14th Street and Fifth Avenue, with windows that zipper along two façades like pull tabs for packages or surgical scars from operations gone wrong. 

To see certain buildings in Manhattan can be akin to running into people you don’t like. You might recoil from them, as if suddenly spotting on the sidewalk that former first boss who used to wash her contact lenses with saliva or the ex boyfriend who surreptitiously chatted on Grindr while you cooked dinner for him. At the sight of certain facades, you sometimes feel the urge to cross the street, to change a usual route to work or the grocery store so that you don’t have to glance at them. You might hear yourself muttering about the ugly smirk the building never loses, the whirlpools of bad breath their very shapes or exhaust vents stir up on the sidewalk. “No respect for anything else around them,” you might think. “It’s all about me, me, me.” 

A building in New York, though really a building anywhere, must do three things—and if it fails at any one, it is bad architecture and often too late to go back to the CAD drawing board (the following phrasing is simply updated and not that of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, who really stated it first): 

*A building must serve well its inhabitants, those who occupy it daily and those who enter at any time.

*A building must relate well to the street and sidewalk. 

*A building has a civic duty to harmonize in the skyline, with an attractive face and body. 

All of the mirrored-glass buildings that keep going up in the city know they are so plain at birth they need to cede their own personality and assume those of adjoining buildings. “I just want to blend in,” they say the moment they stand up in the room of Manhattan. “Let whatever surrounds me be my face—whether the façades of other buildings or drifting clouds.” No one respects someone without self-confidence, so why would we respect structures that would rather assume the character of others?

Developer Harry Macklowe knocked down a dozen lovely early 20th-century buildings to erect this mirrored building, so plain it concedes its identity to surrounding buildings.

One of the city’s earliest examples of this reflective-glass phenomenon was the reskinned former Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street, transformed by the Trump clan when they purchased the property. That family of developers, known for regularly exaggerating about the actual number of stories in their buildings, sheathed an otherwise lovely and sculptural building from 1920 with banal mirrored panes, rendering characterless what should be one of the most important urban intersections in the world (in a 1973 movie called The Seven-Ups, the building appears on screen prior to its flaying). 

Another mirror-mirror-on-its-walls, though not-fairest-of-them-all monstrosity is the Ariel East apartments, at 2628 Broadway, which presents itself as a series of seven stacked, telescoping mirrored boxes. The face it presents to Broadway includes two upper floors that are banded completely with louvered vents (how could the architects, CetraRuddy, have been so lazy as to not conceal this? The builders of Rome’s Pantheon figured out how to properly vent a building without showing it to the street in 118 A.D.). This oaf of a building tries so hard to vanish in the streetscape that, instead, it looms over the Upper West Side like an air conditioner, giant enough to cool the entire neighborhood. 

SHoP Architects will soon debut one of its newest masterpieces at First Avenue and 35th Street. To see handsome new faces appear in the Manhattan skyline crowd, such as SHoP Architects’ pair of plié-ing copper-clad apartments connected by a dashing, angled sky bridge on First Avenue and 35th Street, is to want to make friends with them, learn where they came from, find out who their parents were. “And what do you do here,” you might hope to ask as an opening line, perhaps too flirtatiously. Alas, though, upon hearing the price of admission to these and virtually all other new residential buildings you admire—either multi-million-dollar condos or five-figure monthly rentals—most people’s entrée will be restricted (though not the building’s fault). But it is comforting to know you can see them every day, with their beautiful skins and well-proportioned faces and fit bodies. You can fantasize about becoming friends or lovers, though you might settle for a one-time tryst.

To look at the scowling face of the circa-1970’s Fashion Institute of Technology buildings squatting along Seventh Avenue, drooling ropes of rusty residue from bolts holding concrete panels—they appear to be sucking on pieces of hard candy (Brutalist buildings love showing their bolts)—is to know that these structures were born in a collective bad mood. The new Brutalist substation at Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue, adorned with a chain-link necklace and concrete-sealed faux windows, looks like the West Village branch of the Riker’s Island Correctional Facility. And while it is nearly considered an aesthetic crime not to appreciate Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist Whitney Museum, now Met Breuer, structure (I’m an author of a book about Breuer), to negotiate its dank interiors is more like visiting a municipal parking garage than walking through an art museum. 

But to look at the flawless, matte-black-finish of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (I am the same age as the building, though it is has aged far better) or the perfectly proportioned former Pepsi-Co building on Park Avenue and 59th Street, is to revel in structures that seem ageless, that retain their youthful glow and élan. You feel young just being around them, coursing their expansive plazas or the airy spaces beneath overhangs (though entering one at Lever House gives a near-instant high, now redolent of pot from bicycle messengers who gather there). 

The rakish sweep of Gordon Bunshaft’s 9 West 57th Street with proud, muscular cross braces on its east and west flanks (the latter fully visible now due, alas, to the destruction of a handsome assemblage of three neighboring older buildings by the LeFrak family) easily engenders awe. Number 9 relates so well to the street that visitors and New Yorkers often stop to gaze, visoring a hand over their eyes to take in its full whoosh upwards, looking up and up…and up until such admirers nearly fall backwards. The orange No. 9 logo, a work of minimalist sculpture by Ivan Chermayeff, appears to have slid from the roof and landed gracefully on the sidewalk. 

The New School's new building at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, whose facades are zippered with surgical scars.

As for all of the super-tall sliver towers reaching to heliopause (where the Earth’s atmosphere meets outer space), we’ll get used to them once there are enough in place. When 157 West 57th Street rose, it was shocking not only for its Motel 6-esque banality (and Taj Mahal prices), but also for its height. (Alas for the days when the now-emasculated Municipal Art Society cared about size and shadows cast over Central Park; Jackie O would have given the castrated organization a bawling out). The apartment house has already assumed a dowdiness, with its tinted multi-hued panes of glass found on speculative exurban office buildings. As it continues to lose its aesthetic edge, it’s fun to fantasize about the building transforming from a condo with $100 million apartments to a battered low-income housing project. It is so poorly constructed it has yet to lose its sidewalk scaffolding, years after supposed completion, because of nagging repairs on upper floors. 

The Rafael Moneo sliver a few blocks east (technically 432 Park Avenue) has a much more handsome face, albeit one monotonously repeated on four sides. But its bald pate could use some kind of toupee tower or spire, something to tell its viewers that it doesn’t just go on forever into the sky (why would someone pay $90 million to be enveloped most of the time by clouds?).  

I worked for several years as a magazine editor in the Hearst Building, designed by Norman Foster, who is one of the masters of creating distinctive skyscraper skins. His latest is 100 East 53rd St., with its undulating silver façade, and the matinee-idol handsome 50 UN Plaza. Most Hearstites agree about how fun it is to work in the Hearst tower—despite the often un-fun work environment within—because the building determined at its inception to have a style all its own. The windows there are crossed with a big X from the structure’s exterior silver-hued braces, imbuing many office spaces­ with bad feng shui from the start, as was mine. In retrospect, it was symbolic, perhaps, of my being X’ed from the masthead of the magazine at which I worked, along with a dozen other colleagues, with the arrival of a new editor-in-chief (who himself was X’ed out months later). Once, when he stood in my office, leaning against the window, the Xs outside appeared to emerge from his head like devil’s horns. 

50 UN Plaza, a new residential building designed by Norman Foster, noted for its beautiful skin, but seven-figure apartments.

Certain buildings whose demise is actual or threatened often get all of the attention at the expense of those with a less-than-celebrity status. The now-late American Folk Art Museum, for instance, was one of the most overrated structures in New York, more akin to a bunker than a building. Its brooding, hostile, windowless façade was so unwelcoming that the architecture more than the art within likely led to the museum’s demise. But the attention the building got when its demolition was announced was unprecedented, in part because it was a young doomed structure, designed by starchitects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, creators of the Barnes Foundation. 

A view of the epically great Seagram Building and Lever House, with Rafael Moneo's new bald apartment tower in the background.

Yet, an entire square block of handsome limestone buildings, marked by sculpted caryatids and coffered cornices, is coming down on 42nd Street, across from Grand Central, with little, if any, public outcry. Elsewhere, Harry B. Macklowe (the developer infamous, among other career highlights, for kicking tenants out of their SRO apartment in the middle of the night and then knocking down their homes) tore down some dozen contiguous early twentieth-century buildings, each distinctive and artful, wrapping the corner of 53rd Street and Madison Avenue—with no objections. The glass-mirrored shoebox, like something you’d find in an aisle at the Container Store, that replaced the assemblage of perfectly lovely, humanly scaled buildings, essentially an entire streetscape, lay largely untenanted for a couple of years. How could it find any tenants when the building was so void of personality that no one wanted to even push their way through the revolving door?

All of us who move to Manhattan as young adults to launch a life here come to meet new people. We also come to live and work in its buildings. We want everyone and every building we meet to be a friend. The enlightened among us don’t discriminate about age or style. You see New Yorkers and tourists regularly pause in front of the 1927 Fred French Building on Fifth Avenue to take in the golden smile of its entryway. The Dakota, despite its moodiness, is imbued with so much detail that there is always something new to find on it. The brand new 170 Amsterdam Avenue is graced with a distinctive crisscrossed face that is fresh. There is the UN building, whose spirit remains young (enhanced by its recent facelift). And can you show any New Yorker a building handsomer than the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower? 

There are bullies everywhere in this town whom we should cross the streets to avoid. But there are also many long-time friends among us, with new ones arriving daily. Let’s befriend these buildings and hope that they remain in our lives.